There’s a problem in Samoa. It’s not a new problem and it may not even be an escalating issue but it has definitely become more prevalent in the public eye thanks to recent reports by the Samoa Observer and the efforts of people like my friend, author Lani Wendt-Young.
This blog is not intended as a discourse on Samoan sexuality nor is it about our imparted inability to speak out on sensitive issues because sex, even in our rapidly advancing and modernized culture is still taboo. This blog is not meant to condemn one and elevate the other even though the words ‘perpetrator’, ‘offender’ and ‘victim’ are enough to insinuate that there is an assignment of guilt to one party and a horrifying and lasting result for the other.
In Samoa there is no word for rape so our people made one up – fa’a malosi. The literal translation of the phrase is “to overpower”. Appropriate isn’t it? Because when you think of one person overpowering another person you think of words like ‘subdue, conquer, subjugate, mastering and defeating’ which in essence is what rape is as long as you throw in additional associative terms such as ‘force, violate and abuse.’
In Samoa when a male, young or old mistreats a female we ask, “Do you have any sisters?” to which the reply should always be ‘Yes’ because even if you don’t have a sister who was born of the same womb you will still have female cousins. Which means you can never answer ‘No’ to the previously stated question because if you did you would be lying. The truth is you were raised as a member of a large extended family of which, by and large will include at least a handful of people of the female variety whom you were raised with and taught to treat with respect, dignity and love.
In Samoa we call it “Le Feagaiga” – Simply stated, it is a pact, a covenant that you make as a male member of your nuclear and extended family to cherish and protect the bond that you share with your sisters. This pact often extends beyond familial ties to your village, community and organizations that you may align yourself with throughout your life. For Samoans, violating this sacred trust is inexcusable. In ancient times, the desecration of feagaiga sometimes resulted in death. In modern times there is still the possibility of bodily harm, but the fracture caused by a male family member via the breach of feagaiga is still suffered by the transgressor as well as his entire family and one can argue that there is a death of sorts that occurs for the victim – a death of the spirit; a death of things that can never be replaced.
The troubling news of a ‘rape culture’ and the spike in the number of reported cases of rape in the islands is unsettling but not surprising; unsettling because one rape victim is one too many. It’s not surprising because honestly I grew up hearing of rape cases that were only spoken of in hushed tones and quickly stamped out before it spread like a brush fire through the village. All the while the victims suffered in silence while the perpetrators walked the streets without ever being brought to justice and their overdue penance.
Last week the Samoa Observer published a story in which the Chairman of the National Council of Churches provided fodder for some who questioned his sanity. At first glance I was appalled by the man’s advice and his supposition that if a young woman don’t fight back hard enough or ‘bite their attacker to leave a mark’ than they are probably okay with it. But I wondered later on if the good Deacon was really at a loss for words when trying to describe what is happening to our young people and to Samoa as a whole.
The Deacon’s choice of words though rather unfortunate illustrates the difficulty that most people in Samoa, the vast majority of them being lay people with no clinical knowledge of the effects of rape on a victim, a family and a society, are in essence struggling to cope with the issue and how to deal with it.
I disagree with the Deacon’s assumption that we are spending too much time and effort on education, sports and other pursuits rather than on nurturing our children and developing God-fearing attributes to this end – We need more education and we need more wholesome and productive activities complimented with the values that the Deacon espouses in order to mitigate the issue and provide help for the victims.
To clearly understand the magnitude of the indiscretion and its effects on the people we have to understand the problem and the problem can only be understood through education. Thomas Jefferson once said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Without knowledge we become slaves to both the actions and the consequences. Conversely, with knowledge we not only understand the cause and effects of rape but we can search for ways to assuage the action and assign the appropriate consequences.
How can a normal, average, every day citizen make a difference in allaying this alarming trend? When you are enlightened you are empowered and you can empower others by educating them too. This is not the end-all solution but merely a start. Obviously there needs to be a more concerted effort on the part of law enforcement but even the law is powerless when the victim does not feel safe enough to come forward and families protect the perpetrator.
This is a horrible issue that our people are facing in Samoa as well as outside of the islands. I don’t have the answers but I am encouraged by those who are doing their part to assist the victims and bring the culprits to justice but it should never come down to these deprecating labels associated with the violence and cruelty of these impudent, selfish acts.
Samoa, let’s teach and reinforce in our children the traditional values of our culture that inspire us to uplift and empower our daughters, sisters and mothers. Discard the part of our human nature that seeks to defile, degrade and dishonor. Teach our men, young and old, the essence and fundamental need for feagaiga because without it we lose ourselves, our culture and most important, our autonomy as a people.